Pasadena Police Chief John Perez said he was appalled when he saw the cell phone camera images of George Floyd’s death and the tactics used by the Minneapolis police officers involved in the horrifying incident.
Prior to becoming chief, Perez worked in several different units such as Community Relations, S.W.A.T. and Internal Affairs.
Taking control of the Pasadena Police Department in 2018, the 54-year-old, married father of two has tried to reform the PPD through training in implicit bias and de-escalation techniques in potentially violent situations, as well as community integration of officers.
But Perez, who has spent his entire law enforcement career in Pasadena, is more than a police officer; he’s also a scholar, over the years going to school at night and earning three degrees: a bachelor’s in criminal justice, a master’s in behavior science and a doctorate in public administration.
Perez recently spoke with Pasadena Weekly about Floyd and how policing may change, drawing on past lessons learned from the community fallout over the officer involved-shooting death of Kendrec McDade in 2012. In that case, two officers responding to a report of an armed robbery chased the unarmed 19-year-old through a Northwest Pasadena neighborhood believing McDade may have had a gun before shooting him several times.
When you first saw that video of George Floyd’s death, what was your reaction?
Awful. Completely awful. I mean, first of all, you think about police officers on the scene, and as a chief, your heart goes out to them to try and do things right every day. When I saw that, there was nothing about that. I just felt horrible about what was happening to Mr. Floyd.
I looked at the tactics and thought, you know what? That’s not what we prepare for. Officers standing around and not jumping in. And what would have been best is if they thought Mr. Floyd broke the law and needed to be arrested. Then you arrest him and get him out of there. You don’t sit there and just put your knee on top of somebody like you caught a big fish. It’s horrible to see how it was handled, how it happened, and to see a death behind it, Mr. Floyd. It just hurts, man.
How did policing change after the Kendrec McDade shooting?
The realization for the police officers on trying to vet information, when you’re responding to a call and someone’s telling you that people are armed and trying to understand whether that’s factual. We’ve learned a lot about vetting information from the dispatch center out to the police officer. Even then, nothing’s a guarantee. The type of training, I know of the last couple of years and that started back after Mr. McDade, we got really into immersive training.
Immersive training puts officers in very stressful controlled trainings, but it improves your decision-making, so you have a better advantage to make quality decisions under stress in a fraction of a moment, and that’s what you want. Over the last couple of years, we’ve reduced our 30-day review, enhancing our body-worn camera usage for training, the use-of-force de-escalation. We brought in implicit bias [training]. “Why did you stop me?” Communication teaching to help officers use better communication in stressful environments — I think all that has helped us to produce a police officer that can make quality decisions under stress. People think that if you train officers a certain way, they’ll be no more violence in the community. I’m not sure that we’ll ever see that. I do know that over the last couple of years we’ve put in our immersive training in the use-of-force and de-escalation training and we’ve seen a 50 percent decline in the use of force since we started in 2018 to now.
Those are tremendous numbers. And not only that, we’ve reduced the use of strikes and kicks, which are dangerous to people. It’s not always about tasing somebody or doing all that. I think training our people and giving them better options and equipment is the best we could do. And connecting them with the community. At our community dialogue sessions that we were doing, we brought in our young officers to the community, and we bring them to (the City Council’s Public Safety Committee) and to the council and introduce them to all the new officers.
We had never really done that before. I think as we do it, we have a better connection between our young people and I think they feel more connected and know that they have something that they owe to the community. Everybody has their contributions.
Do you support having a civilian oversight commission for the police?
I support having an oversight committee; whatever one the city decides is best for us. I will make it work. I have a chief’s advisory [board]. It is a very difficult group of people but I believe in them and they believe in me. That keeps me pretty darn busy… Let’s go through a process to answer your question so you have a full picture of my world.
The best oversight I have is me. If I’m not doing my job, I will submit my paperwork tomorrow and retire, if I don’t think I’m making the proper change for the community that’s important. Second step is my city manager. I’ve known him for many years and he is not one to sidestep real issues or (avoid) going after real change. He will hold me accountable — that’s internal.
After that, I have the external public. I have the chief’s advisory board. It’s not formal, but I think we get some things done with them. We’re at the table now talking about the use-of-force language in our policy, and that’s important. What other chief is doing that with a chief’s advisory? I don’t know.
Then you have the Public Safety Committee. I crafted every month a chief report, so they get all the information they need, to ask all the questions that they could. I share with them our use-of-force numbers, our complaint numbers, our hiring numbers, our crime numbers, how we’re changing the department on our professional development, internal development and training.
Everything is put in that report…
If the next step is creating a police commission, then I’m open to that, obviously. But I would have to say you have to eliminate the Public Safety Committee because you have two large oversight public processes on the same issue. It would be very problematic for a police chief trying to get out all that staff work and trying to really have these conflicting issues. One might believe one thing and another believes another, and they’re going to have internal fighting at some point.
Do you believe there is going to be a positive change after George Floyd’s death?
I think the positive changes have already been happening. I can’t point to Minneapolis to ask what that chief is doing. There are 18,000 police departments across this great country of ours, a great country. I can’t say what Pasadena, Maryland does. I can’t tell you what Pasadena, Texas does. I can only tell you what Pasadena, California does. And for us to see introduction of our officers into the community, hiring from the community, a drop in our use of force, a 50 percent decline of use of certain striking kicks, a closer connection with the community, a public safety committee oversight, chief’s advisory oversight, the immersive training that we’re teaching our officers on implicit bias, de-escalation, getting involved to stop bad conduct. All these things are happening right here in our town. So change is happening. But when we see it in Minneapolis, I don’t know if the chief has provided immersive training for his department. I don’t know if he’s been doing implicit bias training with his department. I don’t know if he’s looking at ways to decrease the use of force. I’m not criticizing him or any other chief across this country. We all have our dynamic in our own towns. I see the change happening. I see it every day. I see that we’re rewiring our police department. Not quickly enough, not fast enough and not with enough wires to do it perfectly. But I see it every day.